In a landmark ruling on March 28, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Karas in the Southern District of New York ruled that the practice of back-pumping polluted water from the Everglades Agricultural Area into Lake Okeechobee is a violation of the Clean Water Act.
The challenge, filed by Earthjustice in 2002, contended that the South Florida Water Management District was violating the Clean Water Act by allowing the agricultural companies to send fertilizer-laden water into public water supplies, without first requiring it be cleaned.
Erecting a dike around Lake Okeechobee was just the first step in transforming the nation's second largest, natural, freshwater lake into a reservoir. The dike interrupted the natural, gravity flow of water south out of the Lake into the Everglades and enabled the conversion of 700,000 acres of historic Everglades into the Everglades Agricultural Area. And changed the future of south Florida.
First heralded for its "black gold," the muck soils of the northern Everglades provided tremendous conditions for growing winter vegetable crops in the dry season. Today the majority of land in the EAA has been converted to sugar cane, a year-round crop that thrives on organic soils but needs drier soil conditions than are naturally present in the historic Everglades muck. So with the conversion to sugar cane, producers expanded drainage operations to lower the water level in the historic Everglades muck by 18 inches. And where did this pumped-down natural groundwater go? It was pumped uphill into Lake Okeechobee so that it could be available for sugar producers to use for irrigation during dry times. The lake became a reservoir.
Two critical consequences resulted: the back-pumped water loaded with excess nitrogen and phosphorus was added to the lake ecosystem; and the dried-out organic soils disappeared due to subsidence, wildfires and oxidation. The excess nutrient load caused algal blooms and fed an explosion of exotic plants. As the algae and plant matter dies, it falls to the bottom of the lake and creates a muck layer of organic material that steals oxygen from the water that is needed by fish and aquatic organisms. When that muck layer gets stirred up during storms, it once again releases the excess nutrients which causes another round of algal blooms and reduces oxygen. Of major concern to our local waters is the fact that, when water is discharged from the lake, the gates that release the water open from the bottom. What comes down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers is not water from the top of the Lake, it is the accumulated, polluted muck sediments that wind up in our estuaries.
This water drawdown in the EAA is simultaneously caused the loss of nine feet of muck soil in the growing fields due to wildfires and subsidence. And despite these negative consequences the practice has been endorsed, codified and protected through permits and operational protocols of the SFWMD.
As recently as 2012 during the drought, the practice of back-pumping polluted water into the lake was heralded as a solution for meeting Caloosahatchee dry season and drought water supply needs. Imagine!
The SFWMD even appealed to the Florida Legislature for $3.5 million to build a new water treatment plant for communities south of the lake because according to their budget request, "Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay use Lake Okeechobee as a source of raw water for drinking water. Lake Okeechobee receives storm water inflows from major agricultural areas and is heavily nutrient enriched as well as highly colored, having the potential for pesticide and herbicide contamination. Organic material in the water gives rise to trihalomethanes in the water upon treatment with chlorine."
Yet the District seems unconcerned that this same polluted water - and, even worse, the polluted muck -- is being released east and west where, in some cases, it is also being used as drinking water.
So this important decision by the court, 11 years in the making, that pitted Earthjustice, Friends of the Everglades, Florida Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and the Miccosukee Tribe against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, SFWMD and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is, might we say, a sweet victory?
Our thanks and congratulations to the groups that persevered. The case ended up in New York because clean-water groups and several states also challenged the practice of allowing dirty water transfers into public water supplies without Clean Water Act protections. All the cases were bundled together. You can find more information in the Earthjustice press release, posted on our website, sccf.org. Look for the "Current Issues" green box on the right side and click on Victory on Backpumping.
The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation is dedicated to the conservation of coastal habitats and aquatic resources on Sanibel and Captiva and in the surrounding watershed through environmental education, land acquisition, landscaping for wildlife, marine research, natural resource policy, sea turtle conservation and wildlife habitat management. Community support through membership dues and tax-deductible contributions, in addition to grants and staff-generated revenue, makes this work possible.
--Rae Ann Wessel is the director of Natural Resource Policy for Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.